“I turn on the machine when the house smells of sulfur,” Yuki Kitagawa said, pointing to an air purifier in her living room.
“I wondered if we really would be able to live here again, but I’m used to the smell of sulfur now,” Kitagawa, 63, said.
Miyake, a small island in the Pacific, 190km south of Tokyo, was a penal colony from the 17th century to the middle of the 19th century. It now draws scuba divers seeking to swim with dolphins and marine turtles. Colorful tropical fish teem in Miyake’s shallow blue waters.
However, it is not a typical resort island. An active volcano periodically sends islanders scurrying to the safety of the Japanese mainland, most recently between 2000 and 2005, when all of Miyake was evacuated.
The islanders’ deep attachment to this strange and unforgiving place has kept Miyake alive over the centuries, just as the Japanese attachment to their ancestral hometowns has kept many dying communities across Japan from slipping into extinction.
However, the numbers point to an uncertain future for Miyake. Six years after the islanders were allowed to return, only 70 percent of the original population has come back. The population, which peaked at 4,700 in the 1970s, has been shrinking and now stands at 2,700.
The island once had five hamlets, each with its own elementary school, but have been merged into one village with one school. The student population of Miyake’s high school has been declining, with many parents sending their teenagers to schools in Tokyo.
Like most of the towns in rural Japan, Miyake offers few jobs to retain its young people and many young islanders who got a taste of life in Tokyo when they were evacuated have stayed on the mainland.
Even today, the subtle smell of sulfur dioxide gas pervades the island and a landscape dotted by trees killed by the gas and lava flows are reminders that, with eruptions occurring every 20 years, islanders can expect to experience several major volcanic events in their lifetimes.
Nevertheless, because of the Japanese attachment to ancestral homes, however inhospitable, many islanders have continued to return to Miyake after each evacuation despite the dangers. Indeed, the forced evacuation of tens of thousands of people who lived near the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant after the March disaster has become one of the most delicate issues facing Japanese leaders, who finally told angry residents recently that they would be unable to return to their homes for decades.
For Kitagawa’s husband, Nobuo Kitagawa, 65, the volcano’s eruption in 2000 was his third. Like many islanders, the Kitagawas were evacuated to Tokyo.
“In Tokyo, there was nothing to do on weekends but to spend money,” Kitagawa said as he tended to watermelons and cucumbers and other vegetables in his backyard. “Anyway, there was nothing to do after I woke up in the morning.”
Islanders are required to carry gas masks, although few appeared to be doing so on a recent visit and most residents seem unbothered by the smell of sulfur. Parts of the island remain off limits because of high levels of volcanic gases; cars are allowed to pass through the zones, but drivers tend to keep the windows shut. Every morning, the local government announces the level of sulfur dioxide gas through loudspeakers spread around the island. Blue, green, yellow and red alarm signals are attached to telephone poles to indicate the levels of gas in the area.
The lingering sulfur has made the remote island even more inaccessible. Flights linking Miyake to the mainland are canceled frequently because winds carrying volcanic gases threaten to damage airplane engines. Most islanders rely instead on a six-hour ferry ride to Tokyo. Four medical residents run the only clinic, forcing residents to go to Tokyo for any serious illness or injury.
Yuichi Okiyama said he had never thought about returning to Miyake after going to college in Tokyo. However, after the evacuation order was lifted in 2005, Okiyama, 44, visited the island to clean up his ancestral home. The ceiling leaked, the garden was overgrown with weeds and a family truck had rusted from volcanic ash.
After the visit, he decided to quit his job in Tokyo and move back to Miyake. He now operates a souvenir shop.
The recovery of Miyake, Okiyama said, could not be left to his parents’ generation, people who are in their 70s.
“I had to stand up,” he said, adding, however, that his wife and two daughters have remained in Tokyo for the sake of the girls’ education.
One of Okiyama’s sisters, Michika Yamada, 40, happened to be visiting the island from Tokyo. In 1983, the volcano erupted and the flowing lava overran her school, home and neighborhood.
“Everything was gone,” she said. “I don’t have any pictures of my childhood. All my memories are buried under the lava.”
“I miss the island sometimes, but it always stops me from returning when I think of the risk that I may lose everything again,” she added.
Another person who returned is Kenichiro Kikuchi, 36, who owns a bar here. As a child, he said, he had been obsessed with Tokyo.
“I really believed that Tokyo was above the clouds, because the airplane from Miyake flew up into the sky,” he said. “When a ferry from Miyake approached the jetty in Tokyo, I caught the whiff of Tokyo.”
To a child growing up on the island, he joked, the exhaust fumes of Tokyo represented “the most advanced and fresh smell.”
Still, after the evacuation was lifted six years ago, he chose to return here.
Asked why, he smiled shyly and said: “It’s simple. I was born here, so this is where I come back.”